Reading the fine print: San Diego youth excels in journalism

The campus of Torrey Pines High School is dark and abandoned. It is just after sunset on a Tuesday and the sidewalks are still slick with the rain that fell earlier in the day.

The lights in room 102, however, are ablaze and you can see teenagers working tirelessly in front of computers. This is the editorial staff of the “Torrey Pines Falconer” and they are preparing to send their first issue of the school year to the printer.

For the last 15 years, Mia Smith has been the journalism teacher and faculty advisor for “The Falconer.” She sits in the back row of the classroom, copy editing and fact checking each article before it the sections are converted to PDF files for the printer. Smith scrolls through an opinion article discussing San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s controversial decision to sit during the national anthem.

“[The students] hold themselves to really high standards,” she says. “I think their primary focus is campus and community news. But especially in the Opinion page, they like covering national issues and international issues…They kind of feel like it’s part of their responsibility to expose kids to things that they might not otherwise be hearing about, so they like doing that.”

“Falconer” reporters are “inculcated with the idea of integrity in journalism” before they even join the staff. According to Smith, students must take a year-long introduction to journalism course, and pass it with an A, before they can apply to join the independent, student-run newspaper.

Their application package must also include writing samples from said intro course, a graded paper from an English class, letters of recommendation from TPHS teachers and an essay explaining why they would be an asset to the paper. Students that make the initial cut are then interviewed by a panel of “Falconer” editors.

“It is intense,” Smith says. “But these kids want good kids. So I mean, they’ll ask them, ‘What stories are you following recently? What do you think of them?’ It’s not just a fluffy interview, they want kids who are into news.”

“The Falconer” has a long-standing reputation of excellence, maintained by several generations of staff members during its 30 years of existence. Smith says this motivates editors and reporters to ensure only the best drafts of their stories are green lighted for print.

While campus and community news is the primary focus for “The Falconer,” senior (and co-editor-in-chief) Amanda Chen says the paper also encourages its staff to write features on topics that aren’t usually discussed by students.

“That’s kind of the direction we push our new writers to improve in and a lot of the features we’ve done focus a lot on issues or topics that may or may not be discussed at our school,” she says.

Senior Irene Yu is the second editor-in-chief adds that a challenge the paper must overcome is simply convincing the student body that these are issues it should care about: “A lot of times people don’t really have an opinion on something or just not willing to talk about it – even with the bigger topics. I think a lot of times a lot of people, especially when they’re younger or maybe more focused on stuff going on in their own lives aren’t necessarily keeping their eye on the news or things going on in the community.”

If the average teenager at TPHS doesn’t keep current events at the top of their priority list, the “Falconer” staff makes up for that in spades. The walls of the “Falconer” bullpen is tangible proof of the students’ dedication to their newspaper. Staff members keep a running list of “Things [they] do for the Falconer” on a sheet pinned to the wall, including activities like “wrestle,” “take a hip-hop class (even though I suck!)” and “eat haggis.” Another portion of the wall is covered with front pages of past issues; some headlining articles discussed vape usage on campus and a bomb threat on campus.

A common mantra many aspiring journalists hear is that journalism is dead or dying, but spending time with these young professionals has reassured me that this isn’t true. The next generation of reporters and broadcasters is chomping at the bit to step up and breathe new life into the world of journalism.

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